Commentary Magazine


Topic: William Jennings Bryan

The Last Days of Arlen Specter

With only a week to go before Democratic primary voters choose a candidate for the United States Senate, the incumbent’s campaign is beginning to have a Last Days of Pompeii feel to it. In that classic old movie — the original Hollywood disaster flick — ordinary people in the ancient Roman city go about their lives without an inkling about a fact the audience knew before they entered the theater — that their world is about to blow up.

In that same way, we are now watching Arlen Specter campaign for a sixth term in the Senate as if 2010 weren’t different from any other campaign he had ever fought. The polls showing Specter now trailing challenger Rep. Joe Sestak among Democrats aren’t merely routine bad news for a failing campaign. They are a cataclysm for the senator. Specter’s greatest strength in the primary was the sense of inevitability about his victory that backers such as President Obama and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell have tried to foster. Without it, it’s going to be hard to hold the loyalty of the Philadelphia party ward bosses, whom Specter is counting on to manufacture a winning margin. While there is no sign that the state or city party is lessening its efforts on his behalf, these are exactly the kinds of people who don’t like going down with a sinking ship and who won’t go all-out for a candidate who won’t be in a position to do favors for them in the future. Without a massive turnout produced by one of the last viable urban political machines in the country, Specter is sunk. Moreover, Specter’s best argument to convince Democrats to back him — that he is a stronger candidate against Republican Pat Toomey in November — is also fading, given that a month ago polls showed Toomey with a substantial lead over either Democrat.

Ironically, the latest of the state’s leading newspapers to endorse Specter — the Philadelphia Daily News — seemed to understand that dissatisfaction with incumbents and the corruption of earmark spending that Specter exemplifies made the race “a microcosm of the American political landscape” in which the choice in November will be between “a bellwether for the nation, embodying a shift rightward, or a more moderate staying-of-the-course.”

The Daily News makes no secret that it wants the answer to be the latter, but give it credit for creative writing in its endorsement of Specter, in which it characterizes his obvious flip-flops and party switch thusly:

He comes by these changes honestly, as part of a process of finding the truth in issues that resist easy answers. He has been smart and tough enough to survive — and thrive — while resisting easy categorization.

Talk about political spin, this sort of blatantly cynical and deceptive line brings to mind H.L. Mencken’s famous (if not altogether fair) characterization of William Jennings Bryan: “If he was sincere, then so was Barnum.”

Meanwhile, there are two other interesting developments in the race.

Specter has been taking a beating for his “swift-boat” ads sliming opponent Rep. Joe Sestak for his Navy record. So the Democratic establishment brought out the original “swift-boat” victim — Sen. John Kerry — to endorse Specter. While Kerry gave the usual pro forma endorsement of a fellow member of the Senate Democratic caucus, he pointedly refused to endorse Specter’s attack on Sestak or talk candidly about the obvious comparisons between the attacks he suffered and those directed at Sestak. Such an endorsement may hurt more than it helps, since it merely draws more attention to an issue that makes Specter look like a vicious incumbent willing to do or say anything to gain re-election.

Even more unhelpful for Specter is President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. As it happens, the 2009 vote to confirm Kagan as solicitor general occurred during the senator’s last weeks as a Republican, and he voted against her. This gives Sestak yet another opportunity in the last week of campaigning to hammer Specter as a cynical turncoat. Specter’s having to spend time this week dealing with yet more evidence of the insincerity of his conversion to the Democrats is a boost for Sestak.

Taken all together, these developments point to a Specter defeat next week. But while the ending is becoming increasingly clear to the rest of us, we’re left wondering whether he understands that these may well be his last days as a politician with a future.

With only a week to go before Democratic primary voters choose a candidate for the United States Senate, the incumbent’s campaign is beginning to have a Last Days of Pompeii feel to it. In that classic old movie — the original Hollywood disaster flick — ordinary people in the ancient Roman city go about their lives without an inkling about a fact the audience knew before they entered the theater — that their world is about to blow up.

In that same way, we are now watching Arlen Specter campaign for a sixth term in the Senate as if 2010 weren’t different from any other campaign he had ever fought. The polls showing Specter now trailing challenger Rep. Joe Sestak among Democrats aren’t merely routine bad news for a failing campaign. They are a cataclysm for the senator. Specter’s greatest strength in the primary was the sense of inevitability about his victory that backers such as President Obama and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell have tried to foster. Without it, it’s going to be hard to hold the loyalty of the Philadelphia party ward bosses, whom Specter is counting on to manufacture a winning margin. While there is no sign that the state or city party is lessening its efforts on his behalf, these are exactly the kinds of people who don’t like going down with a sinking ship and who won’t go all-out for a candidate who won’t be in a position to do favors for them in the future. Without a massive turnout produced by one of the last viable urban political machines in the country, Specter is sunk. Moreover, Specter’s best argument to convince Democrats to back him — that he is a stronger candidate against Republican Pat Toomey in November — is also fading, given that a month ago polls showed Toomey with a substantial lead over either Democrat.

Ironically, the latest of the state’s leading newspapers to endorse Specter — the Philadelphia Daily News — seemed to understand that dissatisfaction with incumbents and the corruption of earmark spending that Specter exemplifies made the race “a microcosm of the American political landscape” in which the choice in November will be between “a bellwether for the nation, embodying a shift rightward, or a more moderate staying-of-the-course.”

The Daily News makes no secret that it wants the answer to be the latter, but give it credit for creative writing in its endorsement of Specter, in which it characterizes his obvious flip-flops and party switch thusly:

He comes by these changes honestly, as part of a process of finding the truth in issues that resist easy answers. He has been smart and tough enough to survive — and thrive — while resisting easy categorization.

Talk about political spin, this sort of blatantly cynical and deceptive line brings to mind H.L. Mencken’s famous (if not altogether fair) characterization of William Jennings Bryan: “If he was sincere, then so was Barnum.”

Meanwhile, there are two other interesting developments in the race.

Specter has been taking a beating for his “swift-boat” ads sliming opponent Rep. Joe Sestak for his Navy record. So the Democratic establishment brought out the original “swift-boat” victim — Sen. John Kerry — to endorse Specter. While Kerry gave the usual pro forma endorsement of a fellow member of the Senate Democratic caucus, he pointedly refused to endorse Specter’s attack on Sestak or talk candidly about the obvious comparisons between the attacks he suffered and those directed at Sestak. Such an endorsement may hurt more than it helps, since it merely draws more attention to an issue that makes Specter look like a vicious incumbent willing to do or say anything to gain re-election.

Even more unhelpful for Specter is President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. As it happens, the 2009 vote to confirm Kagan as solicitor general occurred during the senator’s last weeks as a Republican, and he voted against her. This gives Sestak yet another opportunity in the last week of campaigning to hammer Specter as a cynical turncoat. Specter’s having to spend time this week dealing with yet more evidence of the insincerity of his conversion to the Democrats is a boost for Sestak.

Taken all together, these developments point to a Specter defeat next week. But while the ending is becoming increasingly clear to the rest of us, we’re left wondering whether he understands that these may well be his last days as a politician with a future.

Read Less

Flotsam and Jetsam

Jim Geraghty observes of Obama’s appearance in Ohio that the president was “defensive, prickly, almost indignant that he’s found himself in the tough spot that he’s in.” That’s pretty much par for the course when things aren’t going well. I think that superior temperament thing only works when he’s on top.

Mickey Kaus: “What do presidents do when they should fire themselves? They fire their advisers and bring in a new crew. That’s what may happen here. I’d guess we’re about 36 hours away from a Beltway call for ‘wise men.’ … If it wasn’t for his role in the Massachusetts Senate debate, I’d say we’re a week away from David Gergen’s touchdown at Reagan National.” But first Obama would have to acknowledge something is wrong — well, other than all those stubbornly angry people out there who don’t understand how hard he has been working.

The Obami never seem to learn anything. Andy McCarthy tells us: “The Justice Department has announced the release from Gitmo of a terrorist who conspired to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in the 2000 Millennium plot. Hassan Zumiri, who was part of an al-Qaeda affiliated terror cell in Montreal, has been repatriated to his native Algeria — a country so rife with terrorists that it was recently placed on the list of 14 countries whose travelers warrant enhanced screening at airports.”

They never learn anything because they avert their eyes from inconvenient truths. Tom Joscelyn on the Fort Hood report: “The report lumps all sorts of deviant and problematic behaviors together as if they have the same relevance to the events of November 5. Thus, we find a discussion of alcohol and drug abuse, sexual violence, elder abuse, and the disgusting methods employed by child molesters. We also learn of the deleterious effects of events ‘such as divorce, loss of a job, or death of a loved one,” all of which “may trigger suicide in those who are already vulnerable.’ . . .What is relevant is Hasan’s religious and political beliefs. He is a jihadist, although you would never know it by reading the Pentagon’s report.”

The Obama presidency has been a disaster for Big Labor. No card check. And now this: “Organized labor lost 10% of its members in the private sector last year, the largest decline in more than 25 years. The drop is on par with the fall in total employment but threatens to significantly limit labor’s ability to influence elections and legislation. . .Labor experts said theunion-membership losses would have a long-term impact on unions and their finances, because unions wouldn’t automatically regain members once the job market rebounded. In many cases, new jobs will be created at nonunion employers or plants.” Maybe union bosses should have spent less time and money lobbying for card check and for ObamaCare and more effort on pro-job measures.

Obama may find the public unreceptive to his populist pandering. Gallup finds: “Americans’ broad views about corporate spending in elections generally accord with the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday that abolished some decades-old restrictions on corporate political activity. Fifty-seven percent of Americans consider campaign donations to be a protected form of free speech, and 55% say corporate and union donations should be treated the same way under the law as donations from individuals are.” (A majority still think it’s more important to limit campaign donations.)

And meanwhile he hits a new low in approval (47 percent) in Gallup.

George Will anticipates Obama’s next ill-advised gambit: “If Obama can now resist the temptation of faux populism, if he does not rage, like Lear on the heath, against banks, he can be what Americans, eager for adult supervision, elected him to be: a prudent grown-up. For this elegant and intelligent man to suddenly discover his inner William Jennings Bryan (‘You shall not crucify America upon a cross of credit-default swaps’) would be akin to Fred Astaire donning coveralls and clodhoppers.” Unfortunately, in a year, the only time we’ve seen the “prudent grown-up” is on the Afghanistan surge — and then only with a lot of adolescent angst and ill-advised lefty rhetoric.

Still cringing over Sen. Arlen Specter’s “act like a lady” blunder, Gail Collins notices: “If the Democrats are looking for a wake-up call from Massachusetts, the big rooster in the room is the plethora of underwhelming candidates they are fielding.” Well, in this climate, it’s hard to recruit the cream of the crop.

Jim Geraghty observes of Obama’s appearance in Ohio that the president was “defensive, prickly, almost indignant that he’s found himself in the tough spot that he’s in.” That’s pretty much par for the course when things aren’t going well. I think that superior temperament thing only works when he’s on top.

Mickey Kaus: “What do presidents do when they should fire themselves? They fire their advisers and bring in a new crew. That’s what may happen here. I’d guess we’re about 36 hours away from a Beltway call for ‘wise men.’ … If it wasn’t for his role in the Massachusetts Senate debate, I’d say we’re a week away from David Gergen’s touchdown at Reagan National.” But first Obama would have to acknowledge something is wrong — well, other than all those stubbornly angry people out there who don’t understand how hard he has been working.

The Obami never seem to learn anything. Andy McCarthy tells us: “The Justice Department has announced the release from Gitmo of a terrorist who conspired to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in the 2000 Millennium plot. Hassan Zumiri, who was part of an al-Qaeda affiliated terror cell in Montreal, has been repatriated to his native Algeria — a country so rife with terrorists that it was recently placed on the list of 14 countries whose travelers warrant enhanced screening at airports.”

They never learn anything because they avert their eyes from inconvenient truths. Tom Joscelyn on the Fort Hood report: “The report lumps all sorts of deviant and problematic behaviors together as if they have the same relevance to the events of November 5. Thus, we find a discussion of alcohol and drug abuse, sexual violence, elder abuse, and the disgusting methods employed by child molesters. We also learn of the deleterious effects of events ‘such as divorce, loss of a job, or death of a loved one,” all of which “may trigger suicide in those who are already vulnerable.’ . . .What is relevant is Hasan’s religious and political beliefs. He is a jihadist, although you would never know it by reading the Pentagon’s report.”

The Obama presidency has been a disaster for Big Labor. No card check. And now this: “Organized labor lost 10% of its members in the private sector last year, the largest decline in more than 25 years. The drop is on par with the fall in total employment but threatens to significantly limit labor’s ability to influence elections and legislation. . .Labor experts said theunion-membership losses would have a long-term impact on unions and their finances, because unions wouldn’t automatically regain members once the job market rebounded. In many cases, new jobs will be created at nonunion employers or plants.” Maybe union bosses should have spent less time and money lobbying for card check and for ObamaCare and more effort on pro-job measures.

Obama may find the public unreceptive to his populist pandering. Gallup finds: “Americans’ broad views about corporate spending in elections generally accord with the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday that abolished some decades-old restrictions on corporate political activity. Fifty-seven percent of Americans consider campaign donations to be a protected form of free speech, and 55% say corporate and union donations should be treated the same way under the law as donations from individuals are.” (A majority still think it’s more important to limit campaign donations.)

And meanwhile he hits a new low in approval (47 percent) in Gallup.

George Will anticipates Obama’s next ill-advised gambit: “If Obama can now resist the temptation of faux populism, if he does not rage, like Lear on the heath, against banks, he can be what Americans, eager for adult supervision, elected him to be: a prudent grown-up. For this elegant and intelligent man to suddenly discover his inner William Jennings Bryan (‘You shall not crucify America upon a cross of credit-default swaps’) would be akin to Fred Astaire donning coveralls and clodhoppers.” Unfortunately, in a year, the only time we’ve seen the “prudent grown-up” is on the Afghanistan surge — and then only with a lot of adolescent angst and ill-advised lefty rhetoric.

Still cringing over Sen. Arlen Specter’s “act like a lady” blunder, Gail Collins notices: “If the Democrats are looking for a wake-up call from Massachusetts, the big rooster in the room is the plethora of underwhelming candidates they are fielding.” Well, in this climate, it’s hard to recruit the cream of the crop.

Read Less




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